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The application of the comparative method to the study of 
early American history has within recent years been attended 
with results of the most substantial value. The scattered 
communities along the Atlantic coast which, since 1776, have 
been united in a common bond of government had their 
origin in widely diverse sets of conditions. While, therefore, 
their development has been characterized by institutions bear- 
ing a general analogy to each other, there is sufficient indivi- 
duality and local differentiation to be observed in any one 
instance, to render a somewhat close comparison of their points 
of resemblance and difference extremely serviceable. It is 
plain, moreover, that, the farther down in the scale of local 
division we can go, the more fruitful will be the study of 
these local institutions. 

While, then, the nation is made up of the several States, 
once colonies or provinces, and while the States are made up 
of counties ; we need to notice that, descending still farther, 
the counties are made up of towns, or, as in some States, 
parishes. We may pass, for our present purpose, any con- 
sideration of the counties 2 in connection with this question. 

1 Bead before the Ehode Island Historical Society, Jan. 22, 1884, and 
before the Historical Seminary, Johns Hopkins University, April 18, 1884. 

2 See Dr. Edward Channing's paper, on "Town and County Government, 
in the English Colonies of North America," Johns Hopkins University 
Studies, 2d series, X. 


6 Town Government in Rhode Island. [74 

While in the Middle and Southern Colonies, owing to the 
scattered condition of the population, and the comparative 
fewness of compact settlements,, the county became a more 
important political division than the town, in all the New 
England Colonies, on the other hand, the county has never 
possessed any political significance. 1 It has been merely a 
convenience of administration. 

In the town, however (as existing in New England), we find 
most of the conditions for a unit of government. Its territory 
is not too large for efficient combination and cooperation. Its 
population is, in general, compactly massed. Its citizens are 
a homogeneous whole. To this it should be added that the 
town, in all the New England Colonies, has from the first 
had a strong hold upon the interest of the citizens. This was 
noticed by M. de Tocqueville, 2 who so long ago as 1835, 
declared that the cooperation of the citizen '* insures his 
attachment to its interest ; the well-being it affords him secures 
his affection ; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition, and 
of his future exertions. 77 The strong hold which the doctrine 
of States-rights has always had in the colonies and States 
south of Mason's and Dixon's Line, has been a striking fact 
in our political history. To a far greater extent than in New 
England, the States have, in the South, rivalled the national 
government, in the interest, the concern, and the affection of 
the citizens. Is not this difference to be explained, in part, 
by the fact that in New England the town has been almost as 
formidable a rival as the State, in this respect ? It has thus, 
perhaps, resulted, that between the two tendencies, the regard 
for the national government has not, in New England, been 
materially encroached upon. 

In this paper we shall examine some of the peculiar and 
interesting conditions under which this institution the town 
has manifested itself in Khode Island ; indicating the con- 

1 In R. I., county officers have no functions beyond those of the courts. 

2 "Democracy in America," (Ed. 1862), I., p. 85. 

75] Town Government in Rhode Island. 7 

trast to be observed between the beginnings of government 
here and in the other New England colonies, and also some 
of the marked characteristics which have continued to distin- 
guish the local institutions of Ehode Island to this day. 


The colony of Rhode Island differs from the colony of 
Massachusetts Bay, for instance, or from the colony of Penn- 
sylvania, in the fact that her settlement was not a deliberate 
act resulting from a formed purpose. The elements of which 
the colony came in time to be composed were at first entirely 
independent of each other. Rhode Island, moreover, had no 
deliberate " founder," in the strict sense of the word. It is 
true that such honor and distinction as we have come to 
associate with the name of founder, belong in Rhode Island 
to Roger Williams, in virtue of the many and signal services 
which he rendered to this colony, and the far-reaching influ- 
ence which has followed his self-sacrificing labors. Yet it is 
only necessary to compare his coming to Rhode Island with 
that of Winthrop to Massachusetts Bay, or that of Penn to 
Pennsylvania, to see that his agency in the matter was not 
the result of a conscious purpose. There is certainly nothing 
to show that Roger Williams came from England to America 
with the intention of founding a colony. Nor is it clear that 
he brought with him from Salem to Providence any intention 
quite so distinct as that. He left Salem because of the offi- 
cial measures taken against him by the Massachusetts govern- 
ment. In steering his " course to Narragansett Bay," l to use 
his own language, his benevolent intentions were, upon his 
own testimony, in behalf of the Indian occupants of the soil 
(with whom a few years earlier he had had several interviews), 
rather than in behalf of any countrymen of his own, for 

1 Narragansett Club Publications, VI., p. 335. 

8 Town Government in Rhode Island. [76 

whom a colony might thus be founded. His primary pur- 
pose, he afterward declared, was " to do the natives good and 
to that end to have their language." ] He even adds more 
explicitly that he " desired not to be troubled with English 
company." It is quite true that he was not without English 
company, either in his journey from Salem, or in his short 
stay on the banks of the Seekonk, or in his final settlement 
here at Moshassuck. But it is perfectly obvious that this 
" company " was almost forced upon him. " Out of pity," 
he declares, " I gave leave to several persons to come along 
in my company," and accordingly he was joined by Harris, 
Smith, Angell and Wickes. 

But Williams's mind was one which felt very readily the 
weight of any strong consideration particularly a benevolent 
one. And so, enlarging his original intention, he considered, 
to quote once more his own language, " the condition of 
divers of my distressed countrymen." 2 The result was that 
he advanced at last to the distinctly formed plan of "a shelter 
for persons distressed for conscience." 

But when did he thus enlarge his conception ? We must 
look a little backward, and a little forward as well, from the 
month of January, 1636, in which he left Salem. So early 
as the previous October the sentence of expulsion 3 had been 
passed. That the intervening three months should not have 
been partly given up to carefully weighing and considering 
the matter with his Salem friends would not be quite natural. 

It is in this light that we may read Governor Winthrop's 
entry in his Journal, on hearing of Mr. Williams's departure, 
that " he had drawn above twenty persons to his opinion, 
and that they were intended to erect a plantation about the 
Naragansett Bay." 4 The matter had reached that stage. 

1 Williams's testimony, Nov. 17, 1677, Proceedings of Harris Commission. 
*B. I. Col. Kecords, I., p. 22. 

3 See the examination of this " Sentence of expulsion," in the Khode 
Island Historical Society's " Collections," VII., pp. 95-100. 

4 Winthrop's Journal, I., p. 175. 

77] Town Government in Rhode Island. 9 

Let us now look forward from January, 1636, and see how 
gradually and in what an unpremeditated 1 manner this infant 
" Plantation about the Naragansett Bay " this " shelter for 
a few of his distressed countrymen," developed by slow and 
gradual stages into a chartered colony. Not until August do 
we come upon the noteworthy agreement, August 20, 1636, 
of those who were "desirous to inhabit in the town of Provi- 
dence." 2 By this act they signified their readiness to submit 
to whatever arrangements might be found desirable, " only in 
civill things," by their thirteen predecessors, whom they men- 
tion as the " present inhabitants." This, so far as any docu- 
ments now remaining to us are concerned, was the beginning 
of the organization known as "the town of Providence," 
though the language, " Towne meeting " is used in an entry 
dated June 16. 3 

" The town of Providence." And what were the bounda- 
ries of this town of Providence ? Whose territories marched 
with it on the north, on the west, and on the south ; and by 
what charter or official sanction did it hold ? Boundaries it 
had none, until the Indian deeds 4 approximately and only 
approximately marked them out. With those of no other 
English settlements did any of its lines coincide, except that it 
was known to lie somewhere west of the Plymouth Colony. It 
was, in fact, a settlement in the wilderness with undetermined 
bounds. And by no charter or documentary authority, from 
white men, was it secured in its possessions. 

Here, then, in the North, was " the town of Providence," 
Williams's town. But at about the same time, another com- 
pany of his " distressed countrymen," most of them residents 

1 Compare R. I. Hist. Soc. Collections, VII., pp. 101-3. 

* E. I. Col. Records, I., p. 14. 

3 R. I. Col. Records, I., p. 12. 

4 Printed in R. I. Col. Records, I., pp. 18, 22-25, 31-38. See also the 
Narragansett Historical Register, II., pp. 222-25, 287-97, where they are 
carefully reprinted. 

10 Town Government in Rhode Island. [78 

of Boston had determined to remove to some place. They 
were avowedly attracted by this beautiful bay, with its fertile 
shores and its then delightful climate. They finally settled 
near the northern end of the island known as Rhode Island. 
This was the beginning of the town of Portsmouth. But what 
relation existed between the town of Providence and the town 
of Portsmouth ? None whatever. They were not two mem- 
bers of the same colony. They were not even two organiza- 
tions planted by the same authority. Nothing but the word 
u independence " properly characterizes their attitude, both to 
each other, and to the rest of America. Allegiance to the 
King (and later to the Commonwealth) was all that they 

These were the two parent settlements. In a short time 
there came to be a settlement at Newport, as an outgrowth of 
that at Portsmouth ; and one at Warwick, in part settled by 
Portsmouth men and in part by Providence men. But though, 
historically, this was the origin of Newport and Warwick, 
politically the towns of Newport and Warwick acknowledged 
no connection and no obligation, at first and for some time. 
The first instance of coalescing, or running together in any 
way, was in the case of the two towns on Rhode Island, 
Portsmouth and Newport, and this occurred four years after 
Roger Williams came to Providence. It was not until 1647, 
more than ten years after the beginning of Williams's settle- 
ment, that the four towns came together under a common 
government, and that any such entity as a " Colony of Rhode 
Island " existed. 

Let us see how this consolidation, and creation of a colonial 
government came about. There are doubtless other causes 
than those which are now recognized, but the chief agencies 
appear to be three in number : First, a common purpose 
animating these settlers ; second, the danger of a common 
opponent without ; lastly, but by no means of least importance, 
the absolute need, in their internal administration, of " Some- 
thing " to quote from Judge Staples, " to give stringency to 

79] Town Government in Rhode Island. 11 

their laws as among themselves." 1 Up to this date, however, 
the town of Providence, dating from 1636 ; the town of Ports- 
mouth, dating from 1638; and the town of Newport, dating 
from 1639; all three of them during a part of this time 
(and the town of Providence during the whole of it), existed 
as independent communities ; more so than the two neighbor- 
ing towns of Salem and Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay 
Colony, more so than the towns of Boston and Springfield 
in the same colony. To find an analogy, in fact, we cannot 
stop short of comparing colony with colony, or colony with 
one of these towns. The town of Providence was, in fact, 
until 1647, as much an independent, self-centred, community, 
as the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, or the Colony of Mary- 

Was there not resistance to the proposed consolidation ? 
We may be sure there was. It is not to be imagined that so 
great power would pass from the hands of the several towns 
without a struggle. The union was, however, seen to be 
inevitable, and it was finally brought about ; but in such a 
way that the language of John Quincy Adams, used many 
years later and with reference to another matter, might with 
almost equal propriety be applied to this. "The constitu- 
tion," says Mr. Adams (speaking of the adoption of the 
United States constitution in 1787-89), " The constitution 
had been extorted from the grinding necessity of a reluctant 
nation." 2 And so it might be said of the union of towns 3 
which the meeting of the first General Assembly of Rhode 
Island signalized, in 1647, that it was "extorted from the 
grinding necessity" of four reluctant towns. 

Roger Williams was dispatched to England, and from what 
was at that time the highest authority in England, the par- 

1 "Proceedings of 1st General Assembly," p. vii. 

2 John Quincy Adams's address on " The jubilee of the constitution!,' 71 
1839, p. 55. 

3 These towns, as the author has elsewhere pointed out, "were scarcely 
less than little 'States/ in the functions which they exercised." (Foster's- 
" Stephen Hopkins," I., p. 158). 

12 Town Government in Rhode Island. [80 

liamentary government, he obtained the patent of 1643-4. 1 
This patent established as one government, " The Incorpora- 
tion of Providence Plantations, in the Narragansett Bay in 
New England." Not until this point can we speak of the 
colony as existing ; and it is of distinct importance to notice 
that, while in the case of most American colonies, the charter 
has preceded and has been the model of the colony, the order 
is here reversed, and the charter is rather the outgrowth of 
the nascent colony with its requirements, more or less urgent, 
and more or less fundamental. That this latter is the order 
of nature one need hardly hesitate to acknowledge ; nor did 
twenty years pass before this same natural law of develop- 
ment called for the replacing of this earlier " patent," with 
the more highly organized "charter" of 1663. 

It is well to pause here and notice how different was the 
experience of Rhode Island in this regard from that of the 
other New England colonies. The Plymouth settlers, before 
landing from the Mayflower on American soil, signed in their 
cabin the memorable compact which combined them into a 
" civil body politic." The Massachusetts Bay settlers, after 
obtaining their charter, carefully brought it across the Atlan- 
tic with them. The Connecticut settlers planted Hartford 
under a specific "commission" from the Massachusetts General 
Court, which was granted, to quote its language, in order 
u that some present government might be observed." 2 But in 
the scattered communities which grew up on Rhode Island 
soil between 1636 and 1647, there were lacking not only 
organic law in common, but even documentary agreement in 
common, and also any delegation of authority from outside 
their limits, until the patent, whose provisions went into 
operation in 1647. 

1 See the address of Judge John H. Stiness, Feb. 4, 1885, on "The First 
Charter," in the R. I. report on "The Providence County Court House," 
1885, pp. 13-58. 

8 Mass. Col. Records, L, p. 171. (In the original, abbreviations are used.) 

81] Town Government in Rhode Island. 13 


Let us look now at some of the characteristics which 
marked these local communities from the outset. As a con- 
spicuous example, their extraordinarily exaggerated separatism 
may be mentioned. In Providence, for instance, this ren- 
dered any progress towards formal organization extremely 
slow. The first organized action is that of the " agreement," 
signed Aug. 20, 1636, in which thirteen " present inhabitants " 
are named, one being Roger Williams. A letter written by 
Williams to Governor John Winthrop (the elder), at about 
this very time, 1 is valuable as throwing some light on the 
condition of mind in which these recluses approached even so 
rudimentary a measure of local government as this. "We 
have no patent," he remarks, " nor doth the face of magis- 
tracy suit with our present condition." 

" Hitherto," he remarks, further on, in the same letter, 
"the masters of families have ordinarily met once a fortnight, 
and consulted about our common peace, watch, and plant- 
ing." 2 But as yet all right of ownership stood in the name of 
Roger Williams, himself, until, some time in the year 1638, 
he made over " equal right and power," etc. to his twelve 
associates. And not until July 27, 1640, did "the inhabi- 
tants of the town of Providence" reach the point of a regu- 
lar election of town officers, and " agree for the towne to 
choose" the various officers required. 3 So far, indeed, were 
they from consciously founding a colony, that they thus 
omitted the actual organization of a town government, by 
appointment of officers to administer it, until apparently 
forced to it step by step. 

This agreement, says Staples, " went into immediate opera- 
tion, and constituted the town government for several years." 4 

1 In August or September, 1636. (Narragansett Club Pub., VI., p. 4.) 
* Narragansett Club Pub., VI., p. 4. 
3 Staples's "Annals," pp. 40, 41, 42, 43. 
4 Staples's "Annals," p. 44. 

14 Town Government in Rhode Island. [82 

Another thing is significant as showing that the aim of 
these first settlers was not consciously the founding of a great 
and extensive centre of business or influence. In the lay- 
ing of the foundations of other colonies, great care was 
taken in the choice of the men who were to compose 
the infant community. Winthrop, at Boston ; Bradford, 
at Plymouth ; Hooker, in founding the Connecticut col- 
ony; and, in fact, every deliberate organizer of a colony 
went out with picked and chosen men, men who had just 
the qualities needed to build up a political society. Was this 
so in the case of the men who came to Providence with 
Williams? Nay. "It can scarcely be believed," says Mr. 
Dorr, " that if Williams had known the nature of the work he 
had unwittingly begun he would have selected as his associ- 
ates all the men who gathered around him." " Scarcely any, 
save Williams, had any political experience." 1 They came 
with him because they had been his friends or associates, or 
wished to become associates. At Portsmouth, indeed, it was 
slightly different. Such men as Coddington, Aspinwall, 
Hutchinson, and Holden were not without experience in 
political matters ; but what this community lacked in un fa- 
miliarity with administration, it would seem to have amply 
made up in incompatibility of temper. 

This latter characteristic, in fact, indicates a third feature 
in these early town governments, namely, a lack of harmony. 
Repulsion, rather than attraction, was to be observed wherever 
their various elements were brought into contact with each 
other. They wanted very little else but to be let alone. If 
any one from outside their limits would come to them, and 
wished to become one of themselves, that was one thing. 
It was quite another thing, however, if they were expected to 
receive those who simply cared to make visits back and forth, 
or if they were expected to keep thoroughfares open into the 
other colonies. For this they had no mind. (We are speaking, 

1 Dorr's " Providence," pp. 6-7. 

83] Town Government in Rhode Island. 15 

of course, of the very earliest years of the settlements.) They 
did not exert themselves for exchange of merchandise by way 
of trade, nor did they aim at the broadening effect of com- 
mercial intercourse, nor did they lay themselves open to out- 
side influence of any kind. Nor, on the other hand, were 
they much more inclined to cultivate intercourse among them- 
selves. And not only were the different communities fre- 
quently at swords 7 points with each other, but each separate 
community seemed to be capable of bringing forth an abun- 
dance of discordant elements within its own limits. The 
Portsmouth community found itself at so great difficulty in 
reconciling itself to Gorton that he withdrew to Warwick. 
During his brief stay in Providence, antagonism of the most 
bitter nature had been developed between him and Roger 
Williams. Between Williams and Harris, however, was an 
even more bitter contention, which seems to have lasted with 
unabated vigor to the close of their lives. At Pawtuxet, 
also, another active opponent of Williams, who, to put it 
mildly, was capable of somewhat excited invective, existed in 
the person of William Arnold. In the Newport settlement, 
William Coddington was a thorn in the side of more than 
one of the community, and was in frequent collision with 
William Brenton. And as if this were not enough, the 
advent of the Quaker element, in 1654, added one more 
inharmonious note to the chorus of discords. 

Another characteristic is to be noted, in the lack of the 
tendency to organize, in these several communities, in the 
matter of local institutions. No common meeting-house, no 
common burying-ground, no common school-house, no com- 
mon town-house, revealed the fact that these settlers saw 
before them a future of growth and development, for their 
newly-planted settlement. On the contrary, says Mr. Dorr, 
" the fields, the houses, and the barns of the Plantations were 
the' primitive places, both of secular and religious meetings. 771 

1 Dorr's " Providence," p. 9. 

16 Town Government in Rhode Island. [84 

A local community, in the Massachusetts or Connecticut 
Colony, was, in fact, a crystallization around the meeting- 
house and the school-house, as a nucleus. In the early town 
of Providence there was no nucleus of this kind, except the 
early grist-mill. 

Another characteristic is, of course, the now world-renowned 
principle of separation between the civil and religious func- 
tions. Later, it became inseparably associated with the name 
of the colony ; but its origin was in the exigencies of the 
separate towns. 1 


Thus much for some of the characteristics of these towns, 
but we must consider the functions exercised by them. For 
these functions, in fact, determined in part their characteristics ; 
and shaped the government which was organized under the 
two colonial charters ; and continued to be exercised in a more 
or less complete form, long after the adoption of the colonial 

There is, (as should be expected,) a variation in these par- 
ticulars in the various towns. Let us look for a moment at 
the town of Providence, as it existed from 1636 to 1647. 
The government was at first a pure democracy. Not an aris- 
tocracy, in which certain chief members of the community 
assumed the authority. Not even a representative republic, 
in which the interests of all were subserved by the delegation 
of actual legislation to a portion of their number. There 
was no selection ; and there was no delegation. " It would," 
says Staples, 2 " be interesting to peruse the proceedings of a 
colony of civilized men, commencing a political existence 
with the principles of perfect equality, and to mark the 

1 For an examination of this principle as established in Khode Island, 
see K. I. Hist. Soc. Collections, VII., pp. 100-3. 
*Staples's "Annals of Providence," p. 38. 

85] Town Government in Rhode Island. 17 

growth and increase of difficulties which gradually" " led them 
to the abandonment of their pure democracy, to the delegation 
of part of their powers, and to the institution of a repre- 
sentative government." But the records are unfortunately 

This was the time when the town of Providence paid no 
heed nor regard to any other authority whatever, except a 
king 2,500 miles and more across the sea; and when every 
citizen of this same town of Providence was on perfect poli- 
tical equality with every other, and acknowleged the authority 
of no other. This was individual sovereignty, in actual 
operation. It did not, of course, continue long. 

Another function of the towns was connected with their 
administration of justice and punishment of offenders. " Not 
only for troubled consciences," says Judge Durfee, "did the 
new accessions to their population come," but the settlement 
was also a refuge "for troublesome eccentricities. Adven- 
turers came full of restless ardor, chafing at every restraint." 
" Men of vicious propensities came," also, " driven out of 
their old haunts, and seeking fresh fields for indulgence." 

At the outset in both Providence and Portsmouth, "the 
major assent " of the freemen in open town-meeting was what 
decided cases of equity, impositions of penalty, and miscel- 
laneous legal questions. It was before the Providence town- 
meeting, that Joshua Verin was brought, in May, 1637, and, 
to quote again from Judge Durfee, 1 " was tried, convicted, 
and disfranchised," for restraining liberty of conscience. 2 In 
September, 1638, the Portsmouth town-meeting summoned 
before its august presence, eight Portsmouth citizens, whom it 
tried, convicted, and sentenced, respectively, for the offence of 
drunkenness and rioting. 3 In another instance, the Ports- 
mouth town-meeting condemned and divided the property of 

1 Durfee's "Gleanings from the judicial history of Rhode Island," p. 2. 

2 See the original record, R. I. Col. Records, I., p. 16. 

3 R. I. Col. Records, I., p. 60. 


18 Town Government in Rhode Island. [86 

an absconding debtor. 1 There are some minor variations 
between the practice of Providence and that of Portsmouth. 
For instance, in the former town the administration of justice 
was committed to the whole body of citizens, with at first 
absolutely no discrimination. The next step was to select two 
" deputies." In Portsmouth, on the other hand, the citizens 
began by choosing one of their number "judge." Later in 
the same year, three "elders" were associated with him, "in 
the execution of justice and judgment." 2 Yet even they were 
obliged to make a quarterly account of their rulings, to the 
town-meeting (in early records designated "the Body"). 
The town-meeting, moreover, in every one of the Rhode 
Island towns, exercised from the outset the functions of a 
court of probate, nor did the creation of county organizations, 
in 1703, serve to indicate to these towns the desirableness of 
a transfer of these functions to a county court of probate, as 
in most other New England colonies. To this day, in fact, 
the only courts of probate in Rhode Island are, in the towns, 
the town council itself sitting in that capacity ; 3 and in the 
cities, such a body or judge as may be appointed 4 by the city 
council for this purpose. 5 

From such beginnings, by a series of extremely slow 
accretions, and with modifications more slowly introduced 
than elsewhere, has developed the present judicial system of 
Rhode Island. 6 

1 Ibid., I., p. 62. Compare also the instance of capital punishment, cited 
by Governor Hopkins, in his History. (In R. I. Hist. Soc. Collections, 
VII., p. 38.) 

2 K. I. Col. Records, I., p. 64. 

3 " Public statutes of Rhode Island," 1882, ch. 179, sec. 1. 

4 Ibid., ch. 179, sec. 2. The town councils have the option of appointing 
a "judge of probate," but have seldom availed themselves of it. 

5 Another function exercised by the towns in Rhode Island, but usually 
fey county officers elsewhere, is that of the care and control of highways. 
For a curious instance of the infelicitous working of this arrangement, see 
Science, Aug. 29, 1884, IV., p. 175, note. 

6 Its growth and development have been traced by Chief Justice Durfee, 
of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, in his recent monograph, " Gleanings 

87]- Town Government in Rhode Island. 19 

Another function exercised by these towns was connected 
with financial administration. This has always been recog- 
nized as an indispensable accompaniment of local self-govern- 
ment; and there is therefore nothing noteworthy about it 
except as connected with its re-appearance after the union. 
There can be no doubt that a hesitation on this point lay at 
the foundation of much of the reluctance to enter into the 

Passing now from our consideration of the origin, the 
characteristics, and the functions, of those towns before the 
year 1647, let us examine the frames of government success- 
ively imposed upon Rhode Island by the Patent adopted in 
1647, by the Charter of 1663, and by the various modifica- 
tions subsequently introduced ; and notice how the pronounced 
independency of these early town governments gave character 
to it all. 


The General Assembly of 1647 was the beginning of legis- 
lative action in Rhode Island ; and in organizing under the 
Patent obtained three years before, it adopted as its funda- 
mental body of laws, "that remarkable piece of colonial 
legislation " as Judge Durfee designates it, 1 " the code of 
1647." By this code a legislative body was created (con- 
sisting of a president, 8 assistants, and 24 commissioners). 
But this scheme, unlike most systems of representative 
government, placed no power to originate legislation in the 
hands of these " representatives," with but a slight proviso. 
" All laws," says Arnold, 2 " were to be first discussed in the 
towns." When all four of the towns had acted upon the 

from the Judicial History of Rhode Island," (R. I. Historical Tracts, Not 

1 Judge Durfee's "Gleanings," p. 6. 

2 Arnold, I., p. 203. 

20 Town Government in Rhode Island. [88 

proposed law, each by itself, and not before, and favorably 
considered it, it was to be passed upon by the " General 
Assembly," whose action was thus simply a final ruling 
upon it. " Thus/' says Arnold, " the laws emanated directly 
from the people." From this provision, says Governor Hop- 
kins, " came the common story, that some towns had hereto- 
fore repealed acts of the General Assembly." 1 

Another provision of the code deserves consideration, as 
showing the exceeding jealousy with which these colonists 
looked upon the assumption of authority by any man. 
Namely, that no person should " presume to beare or execute 
any office, that is not lawfully called to it and confirmed in 
it," nor presume " to do more or less " than he was expressly 
authorized to do. 2 They believed in no " loose construction " 
of their " constitution." The most striking feature of the 
code is that connected with the question of sovereignty, as 
it concerned Great Britain. Nothing has been more com- 
mon in the granting of privileges by a royal government to a 
colony or dependency, than to enumerate certain rights, and 
cover the rest by a general provision which entitled the 
colony to whatever was not at variance with the laws of the 
home government. Was this the case with Rhode Island ? 
Hardly. " Wee do agree," they say, " to make such lawes and 
constitutions," (i. e., conformable to the laws of England) " so 
far as the nature and constitution of our place will admit." 3 
Instead of shaping their laws to those of Great Britain, they 
were willing to adopt such of the laws of the home govern- 
ment as would conform to theirs. And the surprising fact in 
connection with it is, that, in this, they were but following 
the language of their Patent, as granted by the English 

We have said that these towns, and later the colony, owed 

1 R I. Hist. Soc. Collections, VII., p. 45. 
* R. I. Col. Kec., I., p. 197. 
3 R. I. Col. Records, I., p. 158. 

89] Town Government in Rhode Island. 21 

allegiance to no one but the government of Great Britain 
across the sea. One might almost go farther and say, in view 
of this remarkable provision, that they regarded themselves 
largely as independent even of that. It is true that at this 
time the King was not on his throne, and that the ascendency 
of the parliamentary and revolutionary government might be 
supposed to have loosened and unsettled for the moment the 
ordinary ties of allegiance. It is true, that when in 1663, 
the extraordinarily liberal charter of the colony was obtained 
from Charles II., the Rhode Island government failed not in 
its formal acknowledgment of his rule. But it is also true, 
and it should never be overlooked, in tracing the growth of 
that spirit of independence in this colony, which led to the 
independent principles and the resolute deeds of the revolu- 
tion, that the colony started on a basis which almost wholly 
ignored any outside authority whatever. It had its origin in 
towns which were politically independent. And that same 
spirit of independence was transmitted to the colonial organi- 

If, now, we examine the operation of government since 
1647, we shall be no less struck with the survival of this 
early spirit of independence, growing out of the town gov- 
ernments. A formal union had taken place under the first 
patent. But when in 1651 William Coddington obtained 
from the home government the act which placed in his hands 
the long-desired supremacy, the stability of this colonial union 
received its first test. It yielded. The colony fell apart. 
Again, as at the beginning, Portsmouth and Newport acted 
together. Providence and Warwick, left thus to themselves, 
formed a separate government. The government of the 
towns, not indeed each one by itself, but by twos in combina- 
tion, was resumed. Doubtless, if the tendency had not been 
arrested, the next step would have been to the original condi- 
dition ; the government of each of the four towns, independ- 
ent of every other. 

22 Town Government in Rhode Island. [90 


But the tendency was arrested. There were enough of the 
citizens who were by this time convinced of the absolute 
necessity for joint action, to unite in sending Roger Williams 
and John Clarke to England to secure still further charter 
rights. Unfortunately, the instructions which they received, 
if any, have not been preserved, so that we are unable to 
judge whether the distinct advance which the charter of 
1663 marked in the direction of a stronger central govern- 
ment, was or was not expressly authorized by the colonists. 
It probably was not, and undoubtedly was exceedingly dis- 
tasteful to them. But none the less, it was felt to be a ten- 
dency which was inevitable and imperative. 

In the patent adopted in 1647, no attempt had been made 
to declare or prescribe the boundaries of the new colony. 
The charter of 1663, however, did attempt this, and for the 
first time expressed in formal, official, language, what the 
colony claimed for itself. This was in 1663. Not until 
1747 was the last of these lines fully settled and determined, 
and the right of possession of the territory by Rhode Island 
formally acknowledged by the neighboring colonies. And 
this is a consideration of no slight importance in considering 
the gradual growing together of the Rhode Island towns into 
one government, and the overcoming of the centrifugal by a 
centripetal tendency.' In the days of 1787 to '89, when the 
union of thirteen somewhat inharmonious States was the one 
thing ardently hoped for, there was a toast which went freely 
circulating about the country, "A hoop to the barrel ! " 
This colony of Rhode Island in its early history needed a 
hoop badly enough, to be sure. Yet it may be considered to 
have had one in the pressure it experienced from its hostile 
neighbors, in the steady encroachments of the adjoining colo- 
nies on the territory which it claimed, and in the uncom- 
promising hostility with which its planting and its rise were 
regarded by them. It was this constant, though unfriendly 

91] Town Government in Rhode Island. 23 

pressure which became one of the strongest agencies in 
compacting the colony into shape. 


Yet the centrifugal tendency was not altogether a thing of 
the past when the last quarter of the 17th century was 
reached, and when the advent of Sir Edmund Andros, with 
his measures of radical reconstruction, once more, and for 
the last time, dissolved the union which had constituted the 
colony of Rhode Island, and threw it back into its original 
state of town organizations simply. It was a singular pro- 
ceeding, and one well worthy of careful study. Not so 
much a revolution, as a resumption of original relations 
which had been interrupted. Not an act of violence and 
anarchy, but apparently, under the circumstances, the only 
natural step to take. 

No more marked difference can be conceived of than that 
between Rhode Island and the other New England colonies, 
in relation to what is known as the usurpation of Andros. 
In the other colonies it was an interruption of ordinary rela- 
tions, and an interference with the exercise of every orderly 
function of government. But in Rhode Island before 1647, 
says Arnold, 1 " each town was in itself sovereign, and enjoyed 
a full measure of civil and religious freedom. They had now 
only to fall back upon their primitive system of town govern- 
ments to be as free" as before. 2 On the 29th of June, 1686, 
the General Assembly voted that it should be " lawful for the 
freemen of each town in this collony to meet together," and 
make all necessary provision " for the managing the affairs of 
their respective towns." 3 The Assembly then dissolved. In 

1 Arnold, I., p. 487. 

2 R.L Col. Kec., II., p. 191. 

3 In the interval between 1647 and 1686, however, 4 new town govern- 
ments had been organized ; King's Towne and Westerly in the Narragansett 
Country ; and Jamestown and New Shorehain, on the Islands. 

24 Town Government in Rhode Island. [92 

1690, the government under the charter was as peacefully 
resumed as it had been set aside, the interference of the royal 
agent being now at an end. In all these occurrences the prin- 
ciple assumed as a basis of action, without apparently a ques- 
tion or protest, was, that these separate, independent town 
organizations had at their own pleasure united in 1647 in a 
league for their mutual welfare and defence ; a league which 
was subject to dissolution at any time by these same indepen- 
dent towns, at their pleasure. This was the theory upon 
which they acted in 1686 ; and it bears a striking resemblance 
to the extreme theory of States-rights, or secession, as applied 
to States; the theory upon which the hesitating States 
defended their attitude in 1787-89, in delaying to ratify the 
United States constitution; the theory on which the States of 
Virginia and Kentucky acted in the passage of the disorgan- 
izing "Kesolutions of 1798," and "Resolutions of 1799"; 
the theory on which the thirteen Southern States acted in 
1861, in withdrawing from the Union. 


How the existence of this principle and this spirit in 
Rhode Island, passed gradually from an insistence on local 
town sovereignty, as opposed to the claims of a centralized 
colonial government, to an insistence on colonial and state 
sovereignty, as opposed to a centralized national government, 
is now to be considered. 

How did this take place ? The answer is, that the once 
heterogeneous community of which the colony of Rhode 
Island was made up, had become by slow and gradual stages 
an extremely horn ogeneous com munity . Homogeneous, indeed, 
it could not help becoming. After the first generation of its 
settlers, immigration from without was not encouraged, and 
for years its families went on marrying and inter-marrying, 
with an almost inappreciable infusion of outside blood. Tra- 
ditions, handed down through successive generations, deep- 

93] Town Government in Rhode Island. 25 

ened and intensified the strongly local sentiment which early 
in the history of Rhode Island had become a predominant 
and characteristic feature of the colony. It scarcely needed 
the steady, unremitting pressure of hostile encroachment from 
without, which, however, was never absent, to cause this 
tendency to pass, as it were, into the very blood of Rhode 
Island citizens. 


It is an interesting study to notice in what form this local 
tendency manifested itself, after the colonial government had 
secured a firm foothold, as opposed to the separate town gov- 
ernments. As was natural, this was to be seen in the promi- 
nence given to the legislative branch of the colonial govern- 
ment, at the expense of the executive and judicial. The 
General Assembly, that body which in its organization came 
nearest to a connection with the popular will, never aban- 
doned the position of superiority in which the original patent 
had placed it; and while it has since then strengthened itself 
as compared with the power possessed by the towns, it has 
never suffered either the executive 'or the judicial departments 
to gain a position of relative preponderance over it. 

If the patent of 1643 be compared with the charter of 
1663, as regards the powers committed to the General Assem- 
bly, it will be seen that while the remarkable restriction by 
which the originating of legislation was originally devolved 
upon the towns had disappeared; and the General Assembly, 
as constituted in 1663, was invested with full power and 
authority " to make, ordeyne, constitute, or repeal, such laws, 
statutes, orders and ordinances," ] as it shall decree ; yet so 
apprehensive w r ere the towns of any tendency to drift away 
from "the people/ 7 that the election of delegates to this body 
was to recur so often as once in six months. For no longer 

1 E. I. Col. Kecords, II., p. 9. 

26 Town Government in Rhode Island. [94 

period were the towns willing to entrust the management of 
their affairs to the body which they themselves had created. 
At every meeting of the General Assembly, moreover, regu- 
lar or adjourned, the charter was to be formally read. 

Another feature of no less importance in this connection is 
the attempt, made with great determination and persistency, 
to connect this semi-annual session of the colonial govern- 
ment as really and fully as possible with the actual, individual, 
undelegated suffrages of every citizen of every town. At the 
outset, in so small a colony as this, it was possible ; and twice 
a year, therefore, in May and October, the citizens themselves, 
of Providence, of Warwick, of Portsmouth, of whatever 
part of the State, assembled in person at Newport, and there 
in solemn council cast their votes for those who they decreed 
should deliberate for them for the ensuing six months. 1 This 
over, they returned to their homes, having inaugurated the 
session, so to speak, and left it to run of itself for the remain- 
der of the time. Of course, the natural tendency of any 
such system as this was to a gradual modification by reason of 
the inconvenience and even impossibility of personal attend- 
ance, in many instances; and this was met by the gradual 
introduction of the system of proxy votes. But the votes of 
the citizens, personal and by proxy, continued to be cast at 
Newport, until 1760. 2 Thus closely was the General Assem- 
bly linked with the actual assemblage of the people of the 

But if its relations to the people, on the one hand, were 
thus interesting and intimate, no less interesting was its rela- 
tion, on the other hand, to the executive and judicial depart- 
ments of the government. Indeed, that relation might 
almost be expressed by the word " identity." Let us see how 
it was in the case of the executive. Look at the language of 

1 Compare Freeman's "Growth of the English Constitution," etc., 
(Tauchnitz ed.), pp. 17-23. 

2 E. I. Col. Kecords, VI., pp. 256-57. 

95] Town Government in Rhode Island. 27 

the charter. It reads : " The governor, or in his absence, or 
by his permission, the deputy -governor of the said company, 
for the time being, the assistants, and such of the freemen of 
the said company as shall be so as aforesaid, shall be called 
the General Assembly." That body, therefore, " called the 
General Assembly" consists, not merely of the "deputed" 
freemen called " deputies " and of " assistants," but also of 
the governor himself, or the deputy-governor. The governor 
was o?i6 of the General Assembly. Had he any power apart 
from it? In 1731 an occasion arose for testing this question. 
Governor Jencks, justly disapproving of the act of the Gen- 
eral Assembly by which an issue of " bills of credit" to the 
amount of 60,000 had been decreed, 1 " negatived " the bill. 
His power to do this was immediately questioned. The ques- 
tion went by appeal to the law officers of the Crown, 2 in London, 
and the decision 3 there reached by an examination of the pro- 
visions of the charter sustained the claim of the General 
Assembly, and settled it that " in this charter no negative voice 
is given to the governor," and that when the governor is present 
"he is merely a part of the assembly and included by the 

And he has no veto power to-day. In this particular, 
Rhode Island stands almost alone among the 38 States, 
Delaware, North Carolina, and Ohio being the only others 
whose governor has no veto. 

Look now at the relation of the General Assembly to the 
judicial department. It was the court, at first and for a long 
time. Just as in Massachusetts the " General Court," as it 
was designated, exercised judicial, as well as legislative func- 
tions, so in Rhode Island, the code of laws adopted in 1647, 
constituted the General Assembly "a Generall Court of Tryalls 
for the whole Colonie." 4 In like manner the charter of 1663 

1 R. I. Col. Rec., IV., pp. 454. 

2 The Attorney General, P. Yorke ; and the Solicitor General, C. Talbot. 

3 John Carter Brown MSS., Nos. 582, 566, 567. 
4 R. I. Col. Rec., L, p. 191. 

28 Town Government in Rhode Island. [96 

established the same arrangement under the new organization. 
" The charter," says Judge Durfee, "did not create judicial 
tribunals, but empowered the General Assembly to create 
them ; and accordingly the General Assembly, at its first 
session under the charter, provided that the governor or 
deputy governor, with at least six assistants, should hold " the 
general court of trials." 1 It was not until 1729 that the 
" Inferior court," the " Court of Common Pleas," was estab- 
lished. It was not until 1747, that a " Superior Court" was 
established, which should, in the functions which it exercised, 
supersede the General Assembly, (i. e., the governor and 
assistants). By the act passed in that year, there was now to 
be, in the place of the governor and assistants, "a chief judge 
and four assistants." But it would be a mistake to suppose 
(and this has been very lucidly traced by Judge Durfee, 2 in 
his interesting monograph), that the General Assembly here- 
upon relinquished all claim to the exercise of judicial func- 
tions. By no means. The result was, that the two bodies 
came, more than once, into collision with each other. In 
1752, the case of Mawney vs. Peirce came up to the Superior 
Court, in the regular course, and was decided in favor of the 
plaintiff. Thereupon the unsuccessful party appeared before 
the General Assembly, as before a court having appellate 
jurisdiction, and petitioned for a new trial. 3 And it was 
granted him. The General Assembly thus deliberately over- 
ruled the decision of the highest actual judicial authority in 
the colony. The case of Trevett vs. Weeden in 1786 is too 
well known to need more than bare mention. In this case 
also, the General Assembly was astounded that the Superior 
Court had declared one of its acts of legislation unconstitu- 
tional, and actually summoned the judges before it, and com- 
pelled them to answer for their action. Judge Durfee 

1 Judge Durfee's "Gleanings," p. 11. 

2 Judge Durfee's " Gleanings," pp. 58-65. 

3 R. I. Col. Kec., V., p. 359. 

97] Town Government in Rhode Island. 29 

remarks, that there were not a few who maintained "that 
after the revolution 1 (the English revolution), the General 
Assembly of Rhode Island was as omnipotent as the parlia- 
ment of England. 77 

Since the decision rendered by Chief- Justice Ames in 1856, 
and the action of the General Assembly in 1860, the General 
Assembly, says Judge Durfee, "has never intentionally at 
least, encroached upon the proper province of the judiciary." 

We have been thus minute in touching upon the predomi- 
nance of the General Assembly in the organization of the 
colonial government, because it represented, so very perfectly 
and intimately, the survival of the spirit of local town 


To quite a late period, the towns still kept alive a very 
vigorous flame of the same local spirit. Perhaps one of 
the most striking instances to be met anywhere in the 
annals of Rhode Island, is one which occurred late in the 
eighteenth century. The town in question was the town of 
Scituate, not one of the original four towns, but one created 
in 1731, by an act of the General Assembly. 

Coddington's commission, in 1651, had been held to dis- 
solve, virtually, the colonial government under the existing 
patent. Andros's usurpation, likewise, in 1686, was con- 
sidered as again resolving the government into its elements. 
Did the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, possess simi- 
larly significant powers of dissolution? Here was a town 
government which held that it did. In the paper drawn up 
by a committee of the town of Scituate, dated April 28, 
1777, (the chairman being a distinguished general of the 
revolution), it was maintained 2 that upon the Declaration 

1 Judge Durfee' s " Gleanings," p. 55. 

2 Arnold, II., p. 400. The original is in Foster papers, II., p. 19. 

30 Town Government in Rhode Island. [98 

of Independence, the charter became void, and hence that no 
legal government existed in the State ; and that " upon the 
Declaration aforesaid, the power again vested in the people 
where, we are convinced it still remains, as we do not find the 
people have, since that time either by any person legally 
authorized by them or themselves fixed any settled form 
of government." In the view of this committee, therefore, 
what had been the " Colony of Rhode Island and Providence 
Plantations" was at that moment reduced once more to a 
government by towns, and immediate steps towards placing 
the government again on a deliberately-organized political 
basis were imperatively necessary. 

However sound this view of the case may have been, it 
does not appear to have been shared by any other of the 
29 towns then existing, and the "State of Rhode Island and 
Providence Plantations," obstinately refusing to be regarded 
as non-existent, continued to exercise the functions of govern- 

We may also glance briefly at the Somewhat remarkable 
phase which the process of development took, in one of the 
four original towns, the town of Providence. It started, as 
was noticed, with a pure democracy, purer than has been wit- 
nessed anywhere else in the world unless it be the Ekklesia 
of ancient Athens, or the assemblies of certain Swiss cantons. 
Inevitably, a system of representation came to be introduced. 
The power, for instance, of deciding on the allotment of cer- 
tain disputed lands, or the punishment of certain offences, 
was delegated to certain officers, known as deputies. Those 
who constituted " the people " remained an unchanged body 
until a new element gradually made itself manifest. Persons 
began to be received as townsmen who were not, and who did 
not become owners of land, "purchasers," "proprietors." 
Hereupon was introduced a line of distinction which soon 
established a very marked and noticeable division. On the 
one hand, the "proprietors," on the other, the non-pro- 
prietors, the simple townsmen. As is very evident, here 

99] Town Government in Rhode Island. 31 

were the very conditions needed for the development of an 

That in fact is what resulted from it, though only after 
slow stages, and with many protests and efforts at resistance. 
Gradually the form of government became a close corporation. 
The original purchasers who received each one hundred acres, 
admitted some years later, certain other purchasers, who 
received each twenty-five acres. "The whole number of pur- 
chasers/ 7 however, says Staples, " never exceeded one hundred 
and one persons." 1 Their successors in the corporation were 
their heirs and grantees. Gradually there grew up, outside 
of this landed aristocracy, a body of citizens interested in the 
conduct of the town's affairs, and desirous of having a voice 
in it. The purchasers began in 1662, says Staples, "to hold 
meetings distinct from town-meetings, for the transaction of 
business relating to the propriety, but they had the same 
clerk, and used the same record book till 1718." 2 What was 
the status of the body of citizens which lay outside of this 
circle, and which in each succeeding year was becoming more 
numerous, both by accessions from without and by the natural 
increase of population ? These men could become " free- 
holders," this the colony charter provided for, but they 
could never become proprietors. Thus were developed, in 
conflict with each other, on the one hand an aristocracy based 
on land, and on the other, a class equally desirous of represen- 
tation in the government, but studiously kept from attaining 
to the privileges of the " proprietors." Without expressing 
any view as to the wisdom or expediency of this course, we 
may recognize it as a sufficiently singular departure from the 
pure democracy of the earliest times. The action, however, 
says Mr. Dorr, by which the proprietors became a close 
corporation, and rigidly insisted on the line of separation, was 

>Staples's"Amv.ils,"p. 60. 
8 ibid., p. 131. 

32 Town Government in Rhode Island. [100 

not taken without a struggle on the part of many of the 
proprietors themselves. l 

Looking now at this tendency to town action, 2 and town 
sentiment, as a characteristic of Rhode Island government, 
from the first, it is seen to have been at all times a predomi- 
nating tendency. It was inevitable that when in the years, 
1774 to 1790, Rhode Island was brought into association 
with the other colonies, and finally in 1790 became a part of 
the Union, this principle should continue to characterize her 
action. In the structure of government and law, which, by 
slow and gradual advances became embodied in the constitution 
of the United States, these are elements which can be traced 
to this one and that one of the thirteen original colonies. 
What elements in it are to be traced to Rhode Island ? Two, 

1 The connection above cited as existing between the proprietorship of 
land and the development of an aristocratic element in government, at 
Providence, is sufficiently curious, but it is not the only Rhode Island 
instance. For another instance, see the peculiar state of society in the 
Narragansett Country, as described in Dr. Channing's paper on " The Nar- 
ragansett Planters." 

2 The city of Providence, (which exchanged a town government for a 
city charter in 1832, and which has grown in these 54 years from a popula- 
tion of less than 20,000, to nearly 120,000, is perhaps the only instance 
of a city similarly organized which still continues to hold an annual town- 
meeting, though, in some instances, as in the case of Hartford, Conn., 
there is an organized municipality within, and forming a part of a larger 
territory bearing the same name, and governed by town officers. This 
town-meeting, always called for the consideration of precisely the 
same business, the administration of certain valuable lands and funds 
bequeathed in 1824 to the then town of Providence, is a curious survival 
of an old institution. The stranger in Providence, on the 20th of Decem- 
ber, 1884, would have had his attention arrested by the clanging of bells 
from four church towers, and on entering the room designated for the 
town-meeting, would have witnessed the choice of a moderator, the ordinary 
routine of motions, votes, and speeches, as in any village town-meeting, and 
perhaps an undercurrent of humorous enjoyment of the experience. This 
town-meeting is held in consequence of certain provisions in the will of 
Ebenezer Knight Dexter, dated May 28, 1824, and recorded in Providence 
Wills, XIII., p. 194. 

101] Town Government in Rhode Island. 33 

above all. First, the separation of the civil and religious 
functions in government; second, the recognition of local 
self-government, as a tendency counterbalancing that in the 
direction of centralization. Yet both of these principles, 
though in themselves wise and desirable, may, if carried to 
an unbalanced extreme, become something quite the reverse. 
It is not difficult to see that Rhode Island has itself fur- 
nished a field for illustrating this tendency, as regards local 
government. Nowhere else has the tendency to centraliza- 
tion been encountered by a more thorough-going tendency to 
decentralization. No other State, even at present, has two 
capitals. 1 In no other State is there a provision analogous to 
that recognizing what is in effect a third seat of government, 
once in four years. 2 In no other is each one of the towns 
separately represented in the State Senate. 3 In no other State 
was the system of rotation among a half dozen different local 
centres, 4 of the successive sessions of the General Assembly, 
so long retained. In no other State was the original welding 
together of the various elements into one colony, so difficult 
a process and one which required to be several times repeated, 
in consequences of as many repeated dissolutions. 5 In no 
other State was the colony so direct an outgrowth, or rather 

1 The last State, other than this, to retain the double-capital was Con- 
necticut, which abolished it in 1873. 

2 By statute it is provided that, after each presidential election, the 
electors chosen in this State "shall meet at Bristol, in the county of 
Bristol." (" Public statutes of Rhode Island," 1882, ch. 12, sec. 6.) 

3 The States in which each county is separately represented in the upper 
house of the State Legislature, are by no means exceptional. The town, how- 
ever, in Rhode Island, is here, as well as in other connections, the real unit. 

4 As an instance in point may be mentioned four successive sessions of the 
General Assembly, in the years 1789-90; (1) in September, at Newport; 
(2) in October, at East Greenwich ; (3) in October-November, at South 
Kingstown ; (4) and, in January, at Providence. On the following Sep- 
tember, the session was held at Bristol. (R. I. Col., Records, X., pp. 338, 
357, 362, 367, 388.) 

5 See pp. 10-12, 20-21, 23-24. Compare Foster's "Stephen Hopkins," 
II., 170, note. 


34 Town Government in Rhode Island. [102 

creation, of town organizations previously existing, and 
wholly independent of each other. 1 In no other State, more- 
over, had the principle of independence associated itself so 
strongly with the minds of the individual citizens, as well as 
the colony and the town. 

In any consideration, moreover, of the refusal of the Rhode 
Island State government in 1787-90, to accede to the consti- 
tution of the United States, it is necessary to observe the 
close connection of this action with the predominatingly local 
characteristics which had so strongly marked the earlier stages 
of Rhode Island history. The national constitution then 
offered, and later happily acceded to by this state, was at 
the widest possible remove from those theories of local sov- 
ereignty, and those political methods of combination in the 
manner of a league merely, which had come to be the cher- 
ished doctrines of Rhode Island citizens. Those earlier Rhode 
Islanders, who, to use the language of Roger Williams, had 
" drank so deep of the cup of liberty," had found it difficult 
in the extreme to merge their independent town governments 
in a common colonial government in 1647. Their descen- 
dants, in 1787-90, found it no less difficult to merge their 
independent Rhode Island government in the common national 
government now proposed. 

That the United States constitution is not "a compact 
between sovereign States," is a thesis which has been stoutly 
maintained, and as warmly denied, by the giants of debate 
in both houses of Congress. It is worth while to notice that 
in the minds of the Rhode Island legislators, who, in 1787- 
90, so desperately resisted the constitution, there was appar- 
ently no room for question on this point. As they regarded 
it, this national constitution was not a league between sovereign 
states. For that reason they opposed it with all their might. 
Mr. Bancroft, the historian, ii an address before the New 
York Historical Society, in 186 6, 2 remarked that "more ideas 

1 See pp. 7-10. 

2 Jan. 2, 1866. 

103] Town Government in Rhode Island. 35 

which have since become national have emanated from the 
little colony of Rhode Island than from any other." This 
colony has, in fact, been a sort of microcosm, in which there 
have been developed, on a smaller scale, the more important 
issues which have operated in a larger way on the stage of 
national government. 1 Nor should the significance of the 
long contest of 1787-90, in Rhode Island be misunderstood. 
The fact to which it points is not that a tendency had existed 
to emphasize unduly and to press to a most mischievous 
extreme, the local, as opposed to the national idea. That was 
inherent in the very nature of the State's political history up 
to that period. The fact of commanding importance is rather 
that, in the determined and even desperate encounter between 
these two tendencies in Rhode Island, the national principle 
here gained a decisive triumph, how decisive may be seen 
from the fact (elsewhere cited by the present writer), that, 
" from this time on, so long as there was any active Federalist 
party, Rhode Island was a Federalist State." 2 

Briefly to recapitulate, we have seen that the political his- 
tory of Rhode Island, in the eighteenth and nineteenth cen- 
turies, no less than in the seventeenth, is everywhere tinged 
by the influence of these early town governments of the seven- 
teenth century. We have seen that the town governments 
ante-dated the colony ; that they were of distinctly independ- 
ent origin ; that they embodied the political views of men 
originally averse to organized government; that the colonial 
government growing out of them was only very reluctantly 
and very sparingly entrusted with power by them ; that the 
functions exercised by them before the consolidation were such 
as belong to independent governments ; that the powers dele- 

1 Compare also the remark in a recent publication, apropos of Rhode 
Island : " The diversity of character and interest in the smallest of the 
colonies is another illustration of the truth taugh't by Greek and Italian 
history, that it is not always the large States that afford the most instruc- 
tive date for political history." The Nation, Aug. 7, 1884, XXXIX., p. 117. 

2 Foster's " Stephen Hopkins," II., p. 154. 

36 Town Government in Rhode Island. [104 

gated by the towns to the colonial government have been in at 
least two instances retaken from it and again exercised by the 
towns ; that the predominance of this local, or town idea of 
government, has ever since the adoption of the colonial gov- 
ernment under the charter, given character to the political 
development of Rhode Island. No one can traverse this 
interesting period of local history, moreover, without perceiv- 
ing that, while there has been a gradual progress from the 
rudimentary to the more highly-organized forms of civil gov- 
ernment, and from narrowly local to broader and more com- 
prehensive political theories, yet this advance has required 
long periods of time for its issue and development. It is 
hardly fitting to judge of the present or the future, in the study 
of Rhode Island institutions, otherwise than as related to 
what we thus know of the past. 


202 Main Library 








1 -month loans may be renewed by calling 642-3405 

6-month loans may be recharged by bringing books to Circulation 


Renewals and recharges may be made 4 days prior to due date 


APR 5 1979 

MAR 2 

r\r-f\ 4 r- 4QQO 

) 1979 

DEC 1 raw 


, :; 

HEC,CIR. K cl3' 

1 * 

MAY 1 3 1986 

BECcrnc MAR 3 1< 




HIBBiSC OCT 3 '.-3 



FORM NO. DD6, 40m, 3/78 BERKELEY, CA 94720